Friday, April 26, 2019

TINY AMERICANS :: Devin Murphy

A version of the following review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

"In the fall of 1978, our father brought home a stack of books from the library on activities to do with kids as an attempt to get himself sober." Terrance Thurber educates Jamie, Lewis and Connor about the outdoors--listening to trees with stethoscopes and making casts of animal tracks, trying to teach them self-sufficiency. He's also getting them away from their mother, whose haunting sadness has a "firm grip on her ankles." When Terrance abandons the family, the betrayal permeates their futures with insecurities and doubt.

In Tiny Americans, Devin Murphy (The Boat Runner) charts the lives of the Thurbers in short, chronological excerpts from 1978 to 2018. Jamie, who sought solace in childhood trysts in the local cemetery, questions her marriage when her military husband is catastrophically injured. Lewis escapes to the steadfast routine of the navy. Connor struggles to connect with his risk-taking son, who is so reminiscent of Connor and Lewis at that age, with their efforts to numb themselves through brutal games of childhood football.

As his kids try to fill their adult lives with love and stability following their tumultuous upbringing, Terrence gets his act together and tries to reconnect with weekly letters. Though permeated with melancholy, the narrative is buoyed by exquisite details and the sense that forgiveness may be possible even if redemption is out of reach. A collection of vignettes more than a novel, the time gaps sometimes work against the deep story arcs, but the whole is a satisfying chronicle of fraught family dynamics. 

STREET SENSE: If fractured family stories are your jam and/or you like multi-perspective novels or short collections, give this one a try. Not all of the pieces hit me square on, but as a whole I loved some of the insight here and the way redemption was handled.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: We'd race one another to find millipedes, crickets, grasshoppers, and potato bugs, which I secretly envied for their ability to curl up in their instant armor.

* * *

I'd listen for the call-and-response of their tiny mood swings and the endless surrenders they required of each other. I'd lurch into fitful sleep wishing I could stretch my arms out the window, down the side of the house, and rest a hand on each of their shoulders to calm them--to let them feel how much I loved them both.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I'm not sure what this color palette speaks to--whether it's a bit sepia or a sunrise/sunset, but it drew me to the cover regardless. I'm also a bit of a sucker for a picture of a kid, so despite the "view from behind" images that have become so popular, there is enough detail in this one (the slightly disheveled hair and clothing collars) that it snagged me. I wanted to know more about this Tiny American.   

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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